Students walk down the hallway at the early college high school

A Different High School Journey

Jennifer Sicking

Our students are being challenged every day. If you felt like you weren’t being challenged before, that’s about to end," said Lisa Castillo, principal of TCC South/Fort Worth ISD Collegiate High School, as she spoke to potential students prior to the school opening for the 2015-2016 school year.

Two students share a laptop

Ana Hernandez, one of the students in the audience, listened and worried. She struggled and was bullied in middle school. Her mother, Adriana, who works in Academic Operations, learned about the new high school two days before the deadline and encouraged Ana to apply. She did, but as she learned more about the school and what would be required, she doubted herself. "I didn’t have hope that I was smart enough to be in it," she said.

Fellow student Alex Hamilton knew it would be challenging, but he was excited about the possibilities. "I knew that I just had to manage my time and recognize my priorities," he said.

David Trevino had some concerns but also determination. "There’s no way I can’t do it," he said. "I would just have to put more effort toward it."

All three students overcame their fears and began a different kind of high school journey. Every class is honors level or dual credit for high school and college classes. After four years, the students have the potential to graduate with an associate degree or 60 hours of college credit on top of a high school education.

Early college high school differs from the more well-known dual credit classes. Traditional high school students do not start taking dual credit classes until their junior or senior years. Early college high school students, with their way paid by the school district and college, start taking college classes in ninth grade.

Students look up at the teacher

It is an idea whose time has come. As of the 2015-2016 school year, 151 early college high schools were available in Texas, including six at TCC.

Currently, 102 students are enrolled at the TCC South/Fort Worth ISD Collegiate High School. And those students want to attend college. They want to be challenged. "We don’t look at test scores," Castillo said. "Instead, can the student articulate to us that they can meet the high expectations, they are motivated and that they want to get right on their degree?"

Studies have shown that the majority of these students do go on to finish their degrees. A 2014 report by the American Institutes for Research found that 81 percent of early college high school students enrolled in college compared with 72 percent of traditional high school graduates. And one year past graduation, 25 percent of early college students had earned a degree, typically an associate degree, compared to five percent of other students.

A Brookings Institution and Princeton University study found that students from low-income families face a major barrier to a college education in that they are often poorly prepared to do college work. Castillo said high schools like hers ready those students to succeed in college.

"We are ultimately preparing them for college by putting them in college," she said. "They are used to college-level courses and having college professors."

Study after study has shown that education provides the path out of poverty. Advocates of early college high schools say they open the gate to that path.

Students walk down the hallway
Students laugh in the hallway

"She doesn’t see her potential, but she has a lot," said Hernandez of her daughter, Ana. "I’m so thankful for this program. It’s not easy for them to finish high school, but she’ll not only finish high school, she’ll have an associate degree."

That degree is something that also drew Christine Dixon, Alex Hamilton’s mother, to the early college high school. "The less money I can spend on college, the better," the elementary school teacher said with a laugh.

For Hernandez, an immigrant from Mexico who is pursuing her own college dreams, she wants to push her children to succeed. In her husband’s family no one has graduated from college. She wants Ana to be the first. "They have all the tools to succeed," she said of her children.

Students work together

While there are some clubs for students at the early college high school, students must forego some typical high school activities. There is no choir, no Friday night football or cheerleading and no band.

"They don’t realistically have an opportunity to do that," Castillo said. "They can’t miss school to go to tournaments."

Ana, who plays forward and midfield in a city soccer league, agrees that she will forego some of the opportunities, like prom, of a traditional high school. But she knows what she’s gaining. "I will miss all of that, but then it’s better because you’ll have more education than everybody at the end," she said.

Hamilton and Trevino agree.

"It’s worth it because when we’re done we’ll have a diploma and an associate degree," Hamilton said.

Students attending the early college high school choose one path from math, chemistry, literature or kinesiology to prepare for their futures. The school has what Castillo calls a STEAM focus: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math.

Students going here want to be pre-med, teachers and coaches. You name it, we’ve got them!

Principal Lisa Castillo

The ECHS building

Trevino said in the classes, daily homework is a given and it must be completed. "You have to be willing to constantly do the work," he said. "You can’t play around and be immature."

At Castillo’s school, which was built on the campus of Tarrant County College South, some of the professors are hired by Fort Worth ISD but are qualified to teach college-level classes. TCC professors also teach at the school.

"I always get a great understanding of what they go over in class," Hamilton said. "Since it’s a small environment there are not a lot of distractions. You’re able to focus."

Ana Hernandez finds the work challenging, but she’s also found support from her teachers and professors. She gets tutoring and words of encouragement when she needs it. She’s also discovered belief in herself.

"It makes me feel better about myself. It shows me that I’m smarter than I think I am," she said. "Whatever I’m facing now, it is preparing me for the future."

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